At the heart of Anita Nair's first novel, The Better Man
, there's a haunted house--with ghosts lurching around dark hallways and pushing the living down staircases. The cursed construction is in Kaikurussi in central India, and our protagonist, Mukundan, grew up there with his tyrant father and meek, apologetic mother. As the story opens, this frustrated middle-aged writer finds himself returning home, once again taking up residence in his dull, oppressive childhood village. He doesn't want to be there. He drinks rum and fears the dark.
Enter One-Screw-Loose Bhasi, a painter of houses and self-proclaimed healer who sees in Mukundan an opportunity for redemption and friendship. In much of the book Bhasi directly addresses his newfound companion:
Tell me, Mukundan. Tell me what it is that haunts you so. Tell me of the darkness that clouds your life. Tell me why you fold your handkerchief in eight precise squares. Tell me why it is that every strand of coconut fibre has to be heaped in one place when I finish with it. Tell me how it is that you have chained yourself to the clock.
Anita Nair has a great gift for suspense; from the beginning of The Better Man
, she hints at profound losses in her characters' pasts, losses that are gradually revealed as the novel progresses. Class antagonisms crop up throughout, threatening to destabilize the village's quiet existence. A warning for language-minded readers: the book's metaphors can be clumsy and strained to bursting ("the sun took a deep breath and began its morning chores"). But fans of fiction from India, who crave passage into that exotic world, will find it highly rewarding. --Ellen Williams
From Publishers Weekly
All's well that ends well in Kaikurussi, the storybook Indian village that serves as the setting for Nair's charming debut novel. Bhasi, the village house painter, tells part of the tale. Driven out of his teacher's position in another village a decade earlier when he got himself mixed up in a disastrously miscalculated romantic entanglement, Bhasi hopped on a random bus and ended up in Kaikurussi. Since then, he has happily functioned as the village eccentric and off-hours healer. As a healer, he meets his wife, Damayanti, and his path crosses that of Mukundan Nair. Middle-aged Mukundan departed the village at age 18 to escape his tyrannical father, Achuthan, and left his mother to deal with her violent, adulterous husband. Now, having retired from his job as a factory manager, he's come back to the house he inherited when his mother died--Achuthan lives across the street with his mistress--only to find it haunted by her vengeful spirit. Practicing a folk version of psychotherapy, Bhasi manages to restore Mukundan's self-confidence, so much so that Mukundan takes up with Anjana, a beautiful young schoolteacher. Anjana is not fully divorced yet, but Mukundan is willing to risk the social faux pas, until he is invited to Power House Ramakrishnan's house for a meeting of the Community Hall Committee. Power House is the richest man in the village, having won the lottery, and he wants to seize Bhasi's land to put up a community hall. Will Mukundan, flattered by Power House's attention, betray his friend and girlfriend? Nair has the magical ability to make all of her readers feel, briefly, like Kaikurussi villagers in this humorous, imaginative and gracefully written novel. Agent, Laura Susijn. (June)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.